Do you ever have that feeling that you live dangerously close to a weakly hinged door in the space time continuum that opens every
thirty-eight years or so and lets really nasty bio-mechanical killers from the future into your condo? Me neither, but after reading Dean Koontz’ 77 Shadow Street, I’ve considered the possibility, and become intensely grateful for my comparatively common place address.
Set in the Pendleton, a remodeled mansion turned plush condominium located in a city somewhere in America’s heartland, Koontz’ latest effort takes you inexorably down a road you’re sure isn’t safe, but that you can’t resist traveling. It is a truly creepy, frighteningly plausible read that nevertheless contains a thread of hope, which will keep you awake and engrossed long after the lights should have gone out on a work night.
From the first line; “Bitter and drunk, Earl Blandon, a former United States senator, got home at 2:15 A.M. that Thursday with a new tattoo: a two-word obscenity in blue block letters between the knuckles of the middle finger of his right hand,” you know you are in for an interesting ride. Each chapter presses the plot forward with sections from the perspective of different characters, some bright, likeable and attractive, others ugly, evil and frankly scary, all the while shooting out character driven sub-plots like the legs of a bi-polar spider. From the ex-cop security guard, to a successful hit-man, through an ex-marine turned investment broker, a song writer, an author, and a trust-fund baby/conspiracy theorist, to a scientist, a pair of retired cupcake industry giants (sisters, of course) and a widowed attorney, the cast of characters covers the spectrum of personality types, each one with his or her own quirks, qualities and unique voice.
It’s hard to say though, that 77 Shadow Street is completely character driven, since the house at the top of Shadow Hill plays such an integral role in the plot. Much of tone and mood are communicated by an expertly crafted setting which changes constantly, getting darker, scarier and more dangerous as the story unfolds its multiple levels of secrets.
And secrets there are, each one unwrapped with perfect timing and control, like really good chocolate. In the best novels, the reader is placed by the author in that wonderful space between guessing and knowing the outcome. You think you know what is happening, but you aren’t completely sure and, whether you’re right or wrong, the best authors manage to somehow make you think, “that’s perfect,” at every plot twist. Now, I’m generally very good at figuring out quite early on, in a novel or movie, what is going to happen, both next and in the end. (And before you call me egotistical, ask my daughters. They complain of it constantly.) This “talent” of mine tends to make me very impatient with plot holes or authors who call for magnificent leaps of faith from their audiences (Trust me, there’s a big feather denouement to catch you at the bottom. Really! Would I lie to you?). It also means I get bored very easily with plot lines that are too predictable (boy meets girl, gets girl, couple gets a dog and settleszzzzzzzzzz). Koontz not only avoids both literary faux paus, but manages to tell a story that is relevant and revelatory at the same time.
As with most of Koontz’ work, 77 Shadow Street is a warning against the devaluation of humanity without being in any way pacifist. Instead of hiding behind moralistic but abstract principles of right and wrong, Koontz’ heroes (and yes, there are several in this novel) freely acknowledge that “being a bad guy was easy, but being a hero was hard,” and they are willing to do the hard work of heroism without complaint or compromise. The protagonists remain determined to do what is right, even as they accept the stark possibility that they may not win. Surely this is the hardest work anyone can do. As for who is doing the easy work in this book, well, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself, and then we can talk.
In the meantime, I’ll give 77 Shadow Street five menacing yet hopeful little stars.
(77 Shadow Street by Dean Koontz, 2011, Random House, NY.)